Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Faces in the Rocks
One of the major developments in 20th Century art was the blurring of the line between 'insider' art produced by artists who had received a formal art education and Outsider Art produced by artists who created instinctively with little idea of selling their work or exhibiting it to a crticially-informed public.
The movement perhaps started with the appreciation of Picasso, Modigliani, Brancusi and other modernist painters and sculptors of African tribal masks, but it was the term 'Art Brut' (Raw Art) coined by Jean Dubuffet to describe art produced by artists with little or no formal art education which galvanised acceptance of the idea that the vision of an untrained artist could be as interesting or aesthetically stimulating as that of a formally trained artist whose vision had been constrained by their education. It is now realised that to be really original an artist has to unlearn what they have been taught. Picasso is well known for having said that: "... at 15 I painted like Velazquez, and it took me 80 years to paint like a child..."
Earlier this year I visited one of the most famous Art Brut creations produced by Abbé Fouré who lived from 1839 to 1910. It is situated on a steep granite shoreline near the village of Rothéneuf in northern France. Abbé Adolphe-Julien Fouré, with the aid of an elderly helper, began his chef d'oeuvre at the age of 40 and spent the next 25 years carving the granite rocks of this wild coast. The sculpting, which he did every day, was a retreat from the world since he was partially paralysed by a stroke and had lost his hearing and speech. It earned him the name of 'l'hermite' (the hermit).
His sculptures are intertwined masses of mythical beasts, pirates, fishermen and smugglers. The inspiration for the stories and allegories that the sculptures relate were the exploits of the callous Rothéneuf family who were corsaires (pirates) during the 16th to 18th Century.
Visiting the site, you descend down a steep path. The rocks on either side are gnarled and weathered. Walking over the hard granite rocks it is not at first evident how much of the shoreline has been sculpted and carved. In fact, around 500 square metres of the coast are covered with carvings. The natural contours of the rock apparently suggested the final form that the 300 or so sculptures were to take. Faces stare out of niches, monsters surge out of the rock face, swallowing unfortunate sailors. There are some more images here and here and here.
There is a sort of defiance in this work. The sculptures are so close to the sea that inspired them and the waves crash constantly down below. It is as if these figures have survived a ship wreck and crawled out of the sea onto the rocks where all kinds of dangers await them. See the lion in the photo chewing a man's hand. The work is organic, in parts like a grotto and inspired by church art. There is undoubtedly a moral in the stories presented here, but now it is slowly being weathered away leaving only the faces: serious, comic, classical or grotesque.